I don’t know about you, but when I receive a new client lead over email, I have a mini woo-hoo! moment. As photographers, we try so hard to market ourselves and get the word out there about what we do.
But what happens when things go sideways, and when everything isn’t as it appears?
Recently, I was contacted for a photoshoot. Multiple emails and hours of preparation later, I learned it was a scam. Sensitive information has been blurred due to the legit parties getting involved in going after the scammers.
Initial communication and research
I was contacted through my website by a magazine editor who said she had found me on the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) website. Now, I had never gotten a referral from the PPA website, but in talking to other photographers, it’s not that uncommon.
I reached out and expressed my thanks for her interest, just like I would with any other potential client. I asked for more details, and she followed up with in-depth information about the photoshoot.
Upon first glance, she seemed very organized, which is what I would expect from a major publication like the one I thought she was representing.
From there, I did my research, as I had heard of scams like this in the past. I researched the potential client’s name and found her website. It hadn’t been updated in a while, but it did look like she worked for the publication. She wasn’t listed on the publication’s website, but it didn’t seem like their entire staff listing was there anyway.
So I decided to move forward. She sent me over a contract and said that she’d introduce me to the modeling agency. In the future, she said I would work with the agency of my choosing, but that this was just to get me started. It all made sense. There were details in the emails about hair stylists, makeup, specific looks they were going for — everything I would expect from a legit potential client.
When things started to go sideways
When I was given the modeling agency’s contact information, I initially did some research. I couldn’t find anything on the modeling agency name, or the person representing it. But that wasn’t a huge deal — there are several model representatives that I know that don’t really have much of an online presence. So I moved forward and contacted the agency.
The response mentioned being paid in advance. Somewhat of a pain, but the client warned me about this, and said she would send an initial check to cover their expenses.
In my response back, I mentioned that I could make a bank transfer through Chase QuickPay (covering me a bit more), or via PayPal. He did not acknowledge this in his response … but it wouldn’t be the first time that a client hadn’t fully read my email!
We communicated about dates, times and brainstormed some locations. The modeling agency contact was excited. The magazine contact was excited. Everything looked like it would go great.
Red flags start to appear
From there, I said I would do some location research on Monday and get back to them. I sent location images over to the contact at the magazine and expected her to get back to me right away.
While she did email me that day, it was just about the payment, and how it had been delayed. She promised it would be there as soon as possible.
The day before the photoshoot was supposed to take place, I received emails from the client and modeling agency. The client loved the locations I had chosen and emphasized that the check would be coming by the end of the week. She apologized and later gave me a tracking number with the United States Postal Service. The modeling agency emailed me shortly after and placed a big emphasis on the payment.
This got me thinking. The photoshoot is supposed to take place tomorrow … don’t they want to know when and where to meet me? I had sent them photos but never told them where the locations were or what the schedule for the day would be.
Putting the pieces together
I immediately started to do some more research. This time, I simply searched for the name of the magazine, and put “photography scam” at the end of it.
What I found was mind-blowing.
The first link I clicked on talked about several magazines that used to be in print and had since gone online-only. The magazine I was working with was specifically mentioned. But more importantly, it mentioned how people pretending to be representatives of the publications were scamming models.
If they’re scamming models … they’re most likely scamming photographers, too.
From there I found several other more detailed articles talking about how they’re also scamming photographers. And then I hit a gold mine.
I stumbled upon this PetaPixel article from 2017, which outlined a situation almost identical to mine. But most importantly, the email text was almost identical. The modeling details were exactly verbatim, and only a few other details had changed slightly. There’s no way this was just a coincidence.
From there I was about 99.99% sure that they were trying to scam me. From what I read on PetaPixel and other publications, there are a few different scenarios that typically take place:
- You receive the check very close to the photoshoot date and are expected to deposit it and immediately initiate the bank transfer. Once that’s initiated, they cancel the check before it clears, and you’re on the hook for the full amount.
- You’re expected to pay the modeling agency due to delays in the check being delivered. And the check is canceled as soon as you pay the agency, despite it still arriving on your doorstep.
The very first thing I did was to call a friend of mine, who is a branch manager where I bank. He told me he was almost positive that it was a scam as well. He advised me that if the check was coming from a small bank, it was most likely not legit. He also said they could do a search on the account and routing number if need be, to see if anything similar has been deposited in their system.
The next morning, I contacted the real magazine editors, and also the real client through a different email. Both confirmed it was a scam, and they had already hired attorneys in the matter. I was the second person in a week that they had heard from in regards to this.
The fake client did email me back — a few days after the shoot was supposed to take place, apologizing for the delay in the check. She sent me a tracking number, and that got held up in a post office in Florida.
After another email, I received the check a week and a half later (which was labeled as a cashier’s check), and it was pretty clear it was fraudulent. Sure enough, it came from a small bank in Pennsylvania (when the publication was located in New York). My friend did also mention that most of these cases have checks shipped via FedEx or UPS, but in my case, it came from the Post Office. Which means it was also potential mail fraud.
I reached out to the bank on the check, and they confirmed that the name on the cashier’s check was being used in fraud cases, and told me to not deposit it.
Following that conversation, I filed a mail fraud claim with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. When all is said and done with, I plan on shredding the check. I entered information in the form from both the check and the envelope — so be sure you don’t destroy either until you’re confident the case is done. Since then, I’ve received a few emails from the supposed client and modeling agency, all of which I have not answered.
I consider myself a pretty savvy guy. I’ve been sent scam email after scam email over the years, and have caught every one of them before I even respond. But in this case, the professionalism of the potential client made me think it was a real opportunity.
While I didn’t lose any money before I caught them in the act, I did lose a lot of preparation time. I can only warn you to be careful, as scammers are getting smarter and smarter by the day.
For more on Photography Marketing, see my weekly column.